Pet project in St. Louis needs human touch

Bobs Column - The B SideI own two dogs and a cat. Let me get that out of the way at the onset.
And, I have nothing against pets of any kind and believe they make great companions. Finally, I do not understand why anyone would abuse or neglect a pet, and believe it’s shameful that it happens as often as it does.
That said, the growing trend of “rescuing” pets—giving shelter to homeless dogs, for example -- is tough for me to get behind. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with caring for a dog or cat that’s lost its way or taking a trip to the animal shelter to adopt a pet, but I sometimes wonder if our priorities are straight.
I was reminded of the “rescue” trend last week while watching the Blackhawks play the St. Louis Blues. The television announcer noted that Blues captain David Backes and his wife founded Athletes for Animals.
The organization describes itself as a “united team of professional athletes with a shared passion for rescuing and protecting the welfare of homeless pets nationwide. The group is made up of athletes from all the major sports, many who play for St. Louis teams.
Athletes for Animals and similar organizations got significant media attention recently when several members of Team USA, including Backes, adopted dogs while in Sochi and brought them home. While in Sochi, many of the athletes helped feed and care for the dogs abandoned in the Olympic city. It made for great press and better photo ops.
Their actions are well-intentioned. Helping a dog in need—feeding it, giving it a home—is admirable. The trouble is, there are countless hungry and homeless people who need our help long before dogs and cats.
I’ve often wondered what the homeless and hungry think about getting less attention than animals. People sleep under viaducts on cold winter nights, line up for limited space at shelters and pick through the garbage to find something to eat while rescued pets get love and attention from caring families. Again, our priorities are wildly misplaced.
It’s easy to understand why we love pets and want to care for them. They’re cute and adorable. They require some time and effort, but once they get accustomed to their home and family, they’re little bother. We play with them, take them on walks and they respond with unconditional love.
It’s not so simple with human beings.
There’s nothing cute and adorable about the homeless and hungry.
Many have struggled on the streets for years—some are alcoholics, drug addicts and ex-cons. Society too often turns away from these people, convinced that they’re beyond help.
That’s true to an extent. We all know the guy who’s been on the street corner for years begging for a loose change. Chances are he’s never going to get the help he needs and become a productive member of society.
But there also are struggling families who caught a bad break or two—unemployment, unexpected illness—which caused them to lose their home. The road back can be a difficult one. It’s tough to get back on track when home is a car or a series of shelters and you’re next meal is in question.
Backes and his teammates need to understand this. The Blues captain doesn’t have to look outside the city in which he plays hockey to see signs of hunger and despair.
Approximately 135,000 children in St. Louis are at risk for hunger, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This represents enough children to fill Busch Stadium three times.
Further, approximately 88 percent of children enrolled in St. Louis public schools rely on free or reduced-cost meal programs. Many of these students go back to homes where there is little or no food.
In 2011, the Food Research and Action Center reported that nearly 20 percent of Missouri residents experienced low or very low food security. This means that one out of every five people in Missouri does not know where a next meal will come from.
Nearly 50 years, ago Bobby Kennedy traveled to rural Mississippi to check on the progress of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, better known as the War on Poverty. What he found, writes Peter Edelman in his book “So Rich, So Poor,” was “children, thousands of them, hungry to a point very near starvation.”
Kennedy was “deeply moved and outraged,” Edelman wrote, and made relieving hunger a top priority.
Sadly, athletes such as Backes and a host of other celebrities are too busy taking care of pets. Imagine if he and other popular players required fans to make food contributions at personal appearances and autograph signings. Pantries throughout St. Louis would be eternally grateful.
Imagine if an effort was undertaken to build additional homeless shelters in NHL cities—hockey fans would respond if their favorite players were involved.
There’s nothing wrong with watching out for animals, but we must not ignore hungry and homeless men and women in the process.

Inside the First Amendment - Gay marriage, religious freedom and the need for civil dialogue

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

In recent months, legislators in more than a dozen states — from Hawaii to Georgia — have attempted to enact laws they describe as necessary to protect religious freedom.
Some are broad “religious freedom restoration acts” very similar to laws already on the books in many states. Others are amendments to existing laws aimed at allowing businesses to deny wedding services to gay couples on religious grounds. All are driven by the rapid growth of public support for same-sex marriage and gay rights, reflected most powerfully in a series of recent court decisions favoring challenges to bans on same-sex marriage in even the reddest of states.
None are expected to pass any time soon, due in large measure to fallout from the bitter debate over Arizona’s proposed law vetoed earlier this month by Governor Jan Brewer. 
In calmer times, many of these bills might have faced little or no opposition. After all, the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed Congress almost unanimously and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
What’s changed, of course, is the ascendancy of gay rights and same-sex marriage. Those once in the majority on the gay rights issue — successfully passing laws and state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage — are increasingly in the minority. In this new environment, many religious conservatives are rushing to put in place legal mechanisms for seeking exemption from laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, intemperate voices on both sides are making it difficult to have a civil discussion about if and when to accommodate conscientious objectors to same-sex marriage.
Far too many proponents of gay rights dismiss any and all attempts to carve out exemptions for religious people from non-discrimination laws as nothing more than bigotry disguised as “religious freedom.” On the other side, many conservative groups characterize all opponents of religious exemptions as part of the “homosexual lobby” intent on denying religious freedom.
Same-sex marriage vs. religious freedom is fast becoming a shouting match where any concern for the common good is lost in the din of charge and countercharge. Before more damage is done, people on all sides should take a deep breath and acknowledge that non-discrimination and religious freedom are both core American principles. Resolving the tension between these two fundamental rights should be a balancing act, not a zero-sum game.
To some extent, of course, same-sex marriage proponents have already (grudgingly in most cases) acknowledged the need to signal concern for religious freedom.     All states that have passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage have included language ensuring that clergy will not be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies (politically smart, but unnecessary because this would never happen under the First Amendment).
In some states, laws or court decisions extend protections to religiously affiliated groups seeking exemption from participating in or recognizing same-sex marriages. Thus far, however, no state explicitly grants exemptions to wedding businesses that, on grounds of religious conscience, object to providing services for same-sex weddings.
Is there any room for accommodating conscientious objectors who would be required to participate actively in the ceremony or preparing for the ceremony such as photographers or marriage counselors? Can the law draw a distinction between those who want to discriminate against LGBT people (which should not be allowed) and those who object to participating in a ceremony that offends their faith?
However we ultimately answer these and related questions about religious claims of conscience and same-sex marriage, these issues require getting beyond the name-calling and engaging in civil, respectful dialogue.
It’s easy to understand why LGBT people may not be enthusiastic about finding ways to accommodate those who have opposed (and continue to oppose in many cases) laws protecting LGBT people against discrimination.
But to paraphrase religious-freedom advocate Roger Williams (in his 17th century argument with Puritan minister John Cotton), when you are at the helm — after being so long in the hatches — don’t forget what it was like to be in the hatches.
Claims of conscience don’t always — and shouldn’t always — prevail. But a society that takes freedom seriously must seek ways to protect liberty of conscience whenever possible.
After all, the right we guard for others today may be the right we need for ourselves tomorrow.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Guest View One bold solution for many bad decisions

  • Written by Tom Cross

While there may not be one single act that has led to Illinois leading the Midwest in job loss, and having the nation’s worst budget deficit or our record high tax rate, what is clear is that there have been a multitude of bad decisions and failures in leadership that have culminated in the state’s poor fiscal shape.
 The simple fact is, we face very real, serious challenges that can’t be solved with the politics of the past.  The time for excuses and half measures has ended.  We need bold, innovative solutions at this very moment because Illinois families are being punished by the failures of state government resulting in them paying more and getting less.
 Three years ago, Democrats – namely Governor Pat Quinn– promised us that when they raised our taxes they would use that money to pay our backlog of bills.  Three years later, the 67 percent tax increase has chased thousands of jobs out of Illinois, but our unpaid bills still remain at over $7 billion.
 What’s the real impact of a billion dollar deficit and the unpaid bills?  Social service agencies don’t receive funding and they reduce their workload, jobs are lost, and taxpayers pay late payments which totaled $318 million last year alone.
 The impact of this mismanagement isn’t just about numbers, it’s affecting people and Illinois’ future.  We were told that the tax increase would allow for greater investments in education and safety net programs for those who most need our help.  Yet now we face a budget that seeks deep cuts to those very same programs.
The state of our state’s budget is impacting the very fabric of our communities.  The poor fiscal policy in Springfield is a major contributing factor to employers like Caterpillar who have chosen to expand outside of Illinois and Office Max who chose to leave the state entirely.  And it’s not just employers who are leaving Illinois, it’s our neighbors.  From July 2012 to July 2013, Illinois lost 40,000 residents, the highest in the nation.     
We face big problems, but the good news is there are solutions if we elect people with bold ideas who are not committed to the status quo in Springfield.
The lynchpin to Illinois’ economic recovery is not rooted in a complex algorithm; instead, it is found in something families do each day – balancing the budget.
 Indiana does it.  Wisconsin does it.  It’s time for Illinois to follow the lead of our neighbors and balance our budget.  Only with a balanced budget can we begin to reprioritize our state’s investments, ensure our children have the resources they need to compete globally, make certain that those truly need of help are receiving the very best available and make greater investments in our communities.
Unfortunately, politicians like Governor Quinn have overseen unbalanced budget after unbalanced budget.  These actions ignored our constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget and catapulted Illinois into the position of having the nation’s worst budget deficit.
 We must put a stop this cycle of weak leadership and poor decisions that penalize citizens.
As Governor Quinn unveils his budget address, it is my sincere hope that the numbers are real, the budget assumptions are sound and spending decisions are responsible and reflect the priorities of taxpayers. And most importantly, that he proposes a balanced budget.
 But if this budget is built on gimmicks, false assumptions and bad math, then it should be immediately rejected.  We simply cannot afford any more bad decisions.
 Illinois is craving results that positively and meaningfully impact people’s lives.  That begins right now with having an honestly balanced budget.
Tom Cross is the Illinois State Representative for the 97th District and the Republican nominee for state treasurer. 

Another View - CIA spies and tortured lies

  • Written by Amy Goodman

“What keeps me up at night, candidly, is another attack against the United States,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last month in what was, then, her routine defense of the mass global surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. 

All that has changed now that she believes that the staff of the committee she chairs, the powerful, secretive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was spied on and lied to by the CIA. The committee was formed after the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon administration. The Church Committee, led by Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, conducted a comprehensive investigation of abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies, of everything from spying on anti-war protesters to the assassination of foreign leaders.
Thus began the modern era of congressional and judicial oversight of U.S. intelligence.
This week’s public spat between CIA-loyalist Feinstein and that agency might briefly upset the status quo, but they will make up. Sadly, it obscures a graver problem: the untold story of the United States’ secret policy of torture and rendition (the latter is White House lingo for “kidnapping”).
The conflict surrounds the mammoth, classified Intelligence Committee report on this notorious U.S. government program. Feinstein and other senators have sought the declassification of the 6,300-page document.
We have now learned from press reports and from a speech Feinstein made on the Senate floor this week that Intelligence Committee staffers were given access to CIA documents at a secure CIA facility, somewhere outside of CIA headquarters. Feinstein described the scene: “The CIA started making documents available electronically to the committee staff at the CIA leased facility in mid-2009. The number of pages ran quickly to the thousands, tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and then into the millions. The documents that were provided came without any index, without organizational structure. It was a true ‘document dump’ that our committee staff had to go through and make sense of.”
Whether it was in those millions of pages, or provided to the Intelligence Committee staff from a CIA whistle-blower, we do not yet know—but a key document surfaced, called the “Internal Panetta Review,” ostensibly named after Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA at the time. Feinstein said in her floor speech, “What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was ... their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.” This “Internal Panetta Review” specifically contradicts the CIA’s own written testimony to the Intelligence Committee. Yes, the CIA was caught in a lie.
It doesn’t end there. Mike German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism for 15 years, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, “This is really an extraordinary situation ... this is supposed to be oversight of the CIA that the Senate is doing, not allowing the CIA to set the terms for the oversight of their own work.” Feinstein reported that hundreds of documents originally provided were later deleted by the CIA. Now, to add insult to injury, it turns out the CIA is seeking criminal charges against committee staffers, ostensibly for stealing the Panetta review.
Ray McGovern is a former top-level CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. He told me: “This goes back to the key question of supervising the intelligence community. ... People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ ... Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”
The torture was widespread, vicious and conducted in secret “black sites” around the globe. This is what is being lost in the Beltway power struggle between Sen. Feinstein and the CIA. Lives have been ruined; some in U.S. detention died violent deaths at the hands of their captors. In the grim American gulag at Guantanamo Bay, hunger-striking prisoners charged with no crime, some of whom have been cleared for release for more than a decade, are subjected to vicious force-feeding and torture techniques that date back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Let’s hope Feinstein’s indignation is not quickly salved, and that the Intelligence Committee’s oversight of the sprawling U.S. intelligence agencies is invigorated, with real teeth. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden weighed in from political asylum in Russia, saying, “We’re seeing another ‘Merkel Effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
  Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
  Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.

Memorable moments covering elections

Bobs Column - The B Side“Thirty one votes, thirty one votes,” the supporters chanted inside the small campaign office in downtown Park Ridge, Ill. The long-awaited election results were in and there was reason to celebrate.
I stood in a corner of the cramped election headquarters 24 years ago today as passionate supporters of a woman named Rosemary Mulligan celebrated the political newcomer’s victory over her opponent, Penny Pullen, for a seat in the Illinois legislature.
It was a primary election, but the winner was all but certain of victory in November in Republican strongholds like Park Ridge and Maine Township. This was the battle and abortion rights were at the core.
Pullen, the incumbent, adamantly opposed abortion rights, while Mulligan supported them. There were other issues in the race, but abortion is what drove people’s passions. And I was at the center of it all. It was 1990. I was 25 years old, working my first newspaper job and covering politics with gusto.
I will never forget that night. I left the jubilant Mulligan headquarters in search of Pullen. I had to catch her that night to capture her emotions. A friend and I drove to her campaign headquarters. No one was there. I pulled into a parking lot and my headlights captured a woman walking to her car. It was Pullen. She never expected me. I hurried out of the car and asked my questions. She was cordial but disappointed. 
I didn’t realize that night the gift I was about to receive as a young reporter and political junkie. Pullen wasn’t about to bow out quietly. One month later, the veteran legislator contested the election and a recount was held. I wrote story after story throughout the spring and summer as developments unfolded. In September, six months after the joyous night in the Mulligan headquarters, the Illinois Supreme Court named Pullen the winner by five votes.
A lot of people didn’t like Pullen. I respected her. She believed without apologies in her conservative values. She invited my wife and me to Springfield where we visited her on the floor of the legislature. My wife even got to “vote” on a piece of legislation after Pullen told her which button to push. It was an interesting and memorable day. 
There was no quit in Mulligan. She ran again in 1992 and won. She served for two decades in the legislature before retiring last year. 
Tuesday’s election got me thinking about Pullen, Mulligan and my early days as a reporter. I covered the town of Park Ridge for a chain of newspapers in the northwest suburbs. I immersed myself into politics and became the chain’s quasi political editor. I enjoyed attending political events and having candidates come to the newsroom for interviews.
I loved politics and relished the wheeling and dealing that occurred at the township level where town board members controlled their little fiefdoms by handing out patronage jobs in exchange for campaign work at election time. In those days, I knew inconsequential political information like the back of my hand. I knew district boundaries, names of every office holder as well as party officials, such as ward and township committeemen. 
I dug the process—slate making, endorsements, campaigning, winning. I thought the power politicians wielded was impressive. I wasn’t naïve enough to think politics was some altruistic endeavor. And I understood that some pols thought only of their own interests. Still, politics to me was a spectator sport. Favorites, underdogs, drama and a wide array of personalities. And I loved telling intriguing political stories to the reader.
Wow have times changed. Granted, Tuesday’s primary lacked a premier race in The Reporter’s coverage area. Even the statewide races were a snore. But I realized during all the election talk in the newsroom that I don’t care much about politics these days. My knowledge pales in the comparison to that of the young reporter who couldn’t get enough. And, my opinion of many politicians is not too favorable. Too often, party affiliations, the desires of party leaders and egos get in the way of serving constituents. There are exceptions—state Rep. Kelly Burke comes to mind. 
For whatever reason, I’m not that interested anymore. Politicians annoy me or, sadly, amuse me as they “represent” us at various levels of government. And face it, there’s not a lot we can do to change the system they’ve created to maintain the status quo. Too many federal, state and local representatives vote as they’re told by party leaders in exchange for campaign funds and workers at election time. Seldom can a political newcomer clear that hurdle so that fresh faces be infused into the system.
Don’t get me wrong. Give me a solid race with a some intriguing issues and a couple quality candidates and the old adrenaline might flow once again. I sat just one year ago at Dave Heilmann’s election night reception and watched a stunned crowd comprehend that he had lost his re-election bid for Oak Lawn mayor. It was great theater. I doubt Dave would agree. I was witness in 2011 to Oak Lawn Trustee Bob Streit’s near defeat to a political newcomer. The veteran trustee’s team was more than a little concerned that night. 
It would be tough to top Pullen versus Mulligan in the early years of a young reporter’s career. The older, more experienced reporter is not so wide-eyed and just a bit jaded. I have not, however, thrown in the towel.